Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Howl: Grade B

Howl (2010)

Allen Ginsberg, James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Treat Williams, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban; Co-writers and Co-directors Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.

Ginsberg’s long poem, Howl, was published in 1957 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The book was promptly seized by the San Francisco police, and Ferlinghetti, not Ginsberg, was arrested for obscenity. The subsequent trial, dramatized in this film, discusses aspects of the poem and the obscenity statute via trial lawyers Strathairn and Hamm, before judge Balaban. That dramatization illustrates what sorts of arguments were made in defining obscenity in literature back then. Supposedly all the dialog in this movie was really spoken by the original players. While the acting is quite good, the sequence says more about 1950’s morals than about the poem.

The courtroom drama is intercut with a documentary style interview with Ginsberg, played brilliantly by Franco, in which he explains and defends the poem and discusses his artistic process and his awakening as a homosexual. Another intercut thread is a set of faux-archival shots of Ginsberg (again Franco) reading the poem at a coffee shop, and of scenes from Ginsberg’s young life (he wrote the poem when he was 29). And finally, there is an intercut thread of surrealistic animations, mostly human figures swooping about like Tinker-Bell, streaming stardust behind them, to the soundtrack of Franco reading the poem. So all four of these threads are chopped up and re-woven so you don’t get bored just listening to the poem straight through. As a cinematic technique it is brilliant. Somebody should do the same for Eliot’s The Wasteland, and other difficult modern poems.

Yet despite the clever construction of the movie, I was often bored, because the poem itself is just plain tedious in long stretches, and the film insisted on re-reading sections of it, which only increased the pain. There are brilliant passages in the poem, to be sure, both thematically and acoustically/musically. I love “Boxcar, boxcar, boxcar” as a line, for example. It sounds great, looks great, and it is very satisfying to say, and who could think of that?

So there is no denying that the poem has its brilliance. But it is over a half-century old now, and is no longer shocking. Nobody cares any more if you are homosexual; nobody cares if you say “asshole” a lot. In its time, though, the poem was extremely radical, and still worth reading today. The movie covers the poem pretty thoroughly so it is not necessary to know it beforehand.

Ginsberg himself was not that interesting of a character, so the biography aspect of the film is not riveting. Sure, he struggled with his sexual and professional identities and with drugs, but a lot of people have done the same. So while Ginsberg was probably the most celebrated poet of the twentieth century, that doesn’t make the poem better than it is. Conclusion: great movie making, okay subject matter.

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